It hardly needs saying that 2021 was a year of upheaval in North West theatre, but there were changes and events that were not caused by the pandemic, or at least not directly.
But COVID did have its effects. Having reviewed in the same region for many years, of course I have got to know many people who work at the theatres, from the Artistic Directors and Chief Executives to the front-of-house and bar staff, and some of the actors and directors as well. However my usual day-to-day contact is with press officers, and here there have been big changes. A lot of the current press officers are not the ones I dealt with before the pandemic, some are constantly asking for our patience as their department is understaffed and struggling to recruit, while others have brought in PR agencies to help out their dwindling in-house teams. I’ve no doubt this is also the case in other departments with whom I have less contact.
In recognition of the lack of support from central government for freelance workers, which includes most people who work in theatre, Manchester City Council set up a hardship fund for those in the creative industries whose employment was affected by COVID.
If you listen to the BTG podcast, you will have heard me speak to people from a number of Manchester theatres about their experience over the last two years, notably the episode featuring Roddy Gauld, Chief Executive of the Octagon Theatre in Bolton, and Jon Gilchrist, just about to step down as Executive Director & Deputy Chief Executive of HOME Manchester. It was inspiring and humbling to hear about the difficulties with which they, and others at theatres throughout the country, had been faced and the lengths to which they were prepared to go in order to keep producing work for their audiences when other venues had decided it was less risky to close completely for several months. It’s only through skilful management behind the scenes, often by people we don’t hear very much from or about, in an industry that works to the tightest of margins even in good times, that we haven’t seen a lot more theatres closing their doors for ever.
While every theatre had a reopening this year, some had been closed since long before the pandemic. The Octagon in Bolton was due to reopen early last year after a two-year refurbishment programme but only managed to do so in May of this year. Contact also had a major redevelopment in progress when the pandemic hit, but this was already behind its originally proposed reopening date of summer 2019; it finally opened its doors this October. 53two had to leave its previous premises as the landlords wished to develop the site, and has now opened a smaller but much smarter new venue just around the corner this year. The Bowdon Rooms in Altrincham also reopened after refurbishment.
One of the most impressive openings was HOME’s temporary pop-up venue, Homeground, an outdoor performance space with an impressive design incorporating built-in social distancing that didn’t at all diminish the audience’s experience—on the contrary, it was perfect for instilling confidence in audiences who wished to return to live performance safely.
The gradual reopening this year meant that after two years in their respective Artistic Director posts, Lotte Wakeham at the Octagon and Roy Alexander Weise and Bryony Shanahan at the Royal Exchange were finally able to welcome audiences to their first main-house seasons. The Royal Exchange actually reached its 45th birthday this year, while The Dukes in Lancaster turned 50, but neither has yet had a chance to celebrate fully.
A few of the productions that were cancelled or cut short last March have been remounted or rescheduled, but some we have lost for good it seems. After a few preview performances, The Royal Exchange closed on the day that was scheduled as the press night for Rockets and Blue Lights by Winsome Pinnock, which has since opened at the National Theatre in London but there is no word as yet of it returning to Manchester. Back to the Future the Musical managed a press night at the Opera House but had a few weeks left of its première run when it shipped the DeLorean off to prepare for its London opening—Manchester audiences will now have to pay West End prices with travel and accommodation to see it, even if they had previously booked, or wait a few years for a cut-down touring version with a different cast.
We had a Manchester International Festival this year, although it was nothing like its usual scale and in fact I only made it to one event online and nothing in person for the first time since it began. The Greater Manchester Fringe Festival resumed for an event that was more than could be achieved last year, while the Liverpool Theatre Fest, conceived as an outdoor event last year by Bill Elms when indoor theatre was difficult or impossible, returned and spawned a smaller event for trying out new work.
Also this year, Manchester theatre lost a well-loved figure who has had a significant impact on the region’s arts scene for more than thirty years, much of that as Artistic Director of the Library Theatre Company. Chris Honer continued to support theatre at all levels after leaving the Library—I even saw him taking tickets on the door of a Manchester Fringe theatre. He will be missed by many of us.
As the Omicron variant runs rampant and the Prime Minister seems unlikely to get support from his own party to introduce measures to stem it, the immediate future for our theatres is still unpredictable, but the impressive ways in which many of them have reacted to the last two years should give us hope, as long as financial assistance is available to allow them to continue.